The art of it all

Dick Bare learned that you need more than technical knowledge to run a business.

July 26, 2012
Lee Chilcote
Business Management

Despite growing up in the nursery and tree care business, Dick Bare of Atlanta-based Arbor-Nomics Turf says that he didn’t really know much about the landscape industry until he had owned his first company for a year and realized he’d only earned $3,500.

“I said, ‘Wonderful – what was my salary?’” Bare recounts with a laugh. “They said, ‘No – that’s it.’ I knew the names of trees. I learned the hard way that just because you know the technical stuff doesn’t mean you’ll make a living. That’s another art.”

Today, Bare is CEO of Arbor-Nomics, a lawn, tree and shrub treatment company with $6 million in revenues and 50 employees. The gutsy, gregarious entrepreneur – who once wrangled a meeting with the president of Ohio State University so he could ask him how a student like himself could also live in a mansion and drive a limousine – claims the secret to his success is always learning and exceeding expectations.

“I’ve made it a habit when I meet someone successful to ask them how they did it,” says Bare, who grew up near Youngstown, Ohio and earned a degree in horticulture at OSU. “I’m a voracious reader and I’m huge on really exceptional customer service. When people call us, we go out there the very next day and perform the initial survey.”

Although understanding the technical side of lawn and tree care and providing excellent customer service has always come naturally, running an efficient, effective business hasn’t. Bare began ascending the steep learning curve of being a better manager when he started his own business in Columbus and didn’t make any money in his first year.

“People thought I was making money, but it was all going into capital,” says Bare. “I’m kind of a spender, and I was eating up my profits by buying fancy equipment. So I learned you don’t always buy a new dump truck – you buy a used one instead.”

Those initial lessons became the backbone of Bare’s business once he started Arbor-Nomics. He learned to analyze everything and rethink his business model on a regular basis. They also helped to galvanize his decisions when he reached the $1 million threshold and needed to hire a key manager to help him grow his business further.

“I’d been in business 10 years, gotten up to about $750,000 and stayed there for five years,” he says. “I couldn’t find someone for the operational side of the business. When I promoted my technicians, they’d just sit in the office all day and laugh and play. I began to realize I’d have to go outside of my company to find a true manager.”

Finally, Bare landed on Doug Cash, an eager, aggressive worker with the kind of native instincts that exemplify good managers. Within a matter of weeks, Cash had let go two workers that were “baggage” and spent time training others that were company assets. Soon Arbor-Nomics Turf was doing the same amount of business with less overhead.

The decision to hire Cash wasn’t easy – he wanted a lot of money, almost as much as Bare himself was making, and Bare’s father was opposed to hiring the young upstart. Ultimately, however, Bare made the choice and it turned out to be a very good one.

“I said, ‘I’m just going to have to take a chance on that guy.’ I think that’s the definition of leadership,” he says. “Doug has taken Arbor-Nomics to a multimillion dollar corporation.”

Bare’s advice to others is to remain on the lookout for talent: “When you’re small, keep your eye on your crew and see if there’s a guy who can help take you to the next level.”

Another key move that Bare made was hiring his stepdaughter as his accountant. She has instituted financial control systems that have kept Arbor-Nomics operating efficiently.

Over the years, as Bare scoured magazines and books for advice and picked the brains of company owners he met, he began noticing an important, marked shift in how people hired workers. Many newer companies like Starbucks began to consider employees as entrepreneurs, hiring people who would think creatively about how to solve problems.

“We tell people we’re looking for long-term, career-minded guys, and we’ll fire them if we have to babysit them,” he says. “We expect them to go above and beyond. If they see an empty trash can at the end of the driveway while they’re hosing it down, bring it inside. If they see a woman unloading groceries from her car, help her with the bags.”

Perhaps more importantly, Bare says, Arbor-Nomics trains its employees to emphasize communication with customers and pay close attention to the small details. Technicians often take the extra time to knock on a customer’s door and explain the service treatment or write a lengthy note if the customer isn’t home at the time.

Thanks to key managers he’s hired, Bare now has the luxury of stepping aside from the day-to-day aspects of the business to focus on how to run it and growth opportunities. He’s kept Cash and his stepdaughter content by promising to give them 10 percent of the proceeds when he sells it, and is in the process of formalizing that agreement now.

“I’m 64 years old, and that gets you thinking about carrying on the company and your legacy and all that,” he says. “I told them they could leave when we get to $10 million.”

Arbor-Nomics now has four branches in the Atlanta area, including its headquarters, and has benefited from the tremendous growth of the metropolitan region in the past three decades. Recently, the company also opened a branch in Nashville, Tennessee, four hours away by car. Bare says that the acquisition has been challenging but profitable.

“I was surprised at how difficult it was, but when you’re in another town hours away, it’s a whole other ball game,” says Bare. “We’ve got someone there who is a star technician, really knowledgeable and honest to a fault. That’s key.”

Next up, Bare is on the hunt for companies to acquire, hoping to enter another market. Charlotte, Savannah, Washington D.C. and Louisville are among the options he is considering, but he isn’t eager to pull the trigger until he knows it’s a good bet.

Until then, he’s quite content lounging by the pool on a recent scouting trip to Savannah – something he is able to do because he has put managers in place to run his business.

Not that it stops him from working. Recently, he picked up a voicemail that was received at his office at 5:10 p.m. He called the person back from his cell phone two hours later.

“I was sitting down on the river in Savannah, and he was blown away I’d called him back so quickly,” says Bare. “The technician met him at the property the next day.”